Shoot to Thrill

In a pond-splattered, melaleuca-filled corner of the Everglades, five shotgun-toting men take shelter beneath a green-and-white-striped canopy. After a brief but heavy rain subsides, they step into two golf carts and drive twenty yards to a wooden platform. They could have walked that distance, but conserving energy is critical out here. And hey, it's been a long week, and the gear is heavy. Besides, the point of this shooting escapade is to unwind, relax, have a little fun.

Shotguns conjure images of rednecks and, to judge from their nicknames, these good old boys fit the bill. The shooting party includes Homer, his son Junior, Tricky Dick, Mr. Ed, and Frank and Beans.

Frank and Beans is a dark-haired, goateed young man, as husky as he is easygoing. He takes one step up onto the stand, which overlooks a 100-yard-wide, murky, alligator-patrolled expanse of water. Then he grips a shotgun that he received as a gift two weeks ago.

Homer, a fit, energetic 52-year-old hombre, is the group's sachem. Indeed, the visor of his cap is decorated with beaded figures sewn by a woman from the Swinomish tribe who sometimes shoots with the group. One hieroglyph signifies healer and another, warrior. "You got to have some strategy," Homer says to Frank and Beans. "This bird is coming from right to left, so you got to get under it to the left."

"Pull!" Frank and Beans yells, and a flying saucer the size of a dessert plate whizzes horizontally about 30 feet above the pond. He points the gun, pivots slightly, and KABLAM! Frank and Beans misses. Seconds later another spinning disk launches from the right. KABLAM! He misses again. Two more pairs of targets streak across the sky and plop into the water, unaltered by Frank and Beans' payloads of tiny shotgun pellets.

Homer is up next. He fares better, yet he is unsatisfied. He's unaccustomed to missing and is officially in a slump. "I've been shooting high for the last two weeks," he observes. "I don't know why." After the others have shot, the group drives to a similar station about twenty yards down a path that winds along the pond's edge. There is a total of fourteen stops. Along the way, tucked on the ground and elevated on rustic wooden towers, are target-launching machines loaded with stacks of clay disks. Each station includes a hand-held remote control. Punch the button and the targets soar.

Welcome to the wide world of sporting clays at Miami-Dade County's Trail Glades shooting range, near the corner of Tamiami Trail and Krome Avenue. To the untrained eye, the fourteen platforms seem almost identical. But each features a different presentation, which in sport shooting nomenclature means the clay disks' flight pattern. Presentations are supposed to imitate real hunting situations; here's where the language gets tricky. There are crossers (which cross in front of the shooter), incomers (which come in toward the shooter), and outgoers (guess). A slightly rising outgoer, for example, emulates a pheasant or a grouse, while a descending incomer would be a duck or perhaps a very confused partridge. The biggest crowd pleaser is the rabbit, a target that rolls on its side along a rubber mat spread in the mud.

About halfway into the round, Frank and Beans is on the station eight platform, which rises about four feet above the ground. Junior invokes some football imagery. "Think of yourself as Dan Marino up there," he suggests. "And you've got Tony Martin."

"You've got to lead him," Frank and Beans says, finishing the thought.

"That's right, you've got to lead him," Junior repeats.

Frank and Beans fires and hits a few, but his percentage is still low. He's improving, but if this were football he'd be throwing like a place-kicker.

Not wanting anyone to become too frustrated -- a good idea when you are in a group of men carrying shotguns -- Homer offers some Zenlike counsel to the guys, who with the exception of Junior, are shooting erratically. "If you have a bad station, don't get mad. Forget about it," he advises. Despite the repeated cracking of gunfire, dragonflies flitter about. "Sometimes a dragonfly will land on your barrel," says Homer. "I haven't had anyone claim that as a valid excuse, but it is, I think."

Homer is accustomed to nurturing all kinds of people. The Swinomish healing symbol on his cap refers to his real identity: He is David Paz, Sr., a surgeon who works in the Jackson Memorial Hospital emergency room. His son Junior is David Paz, Jr., a lawyer who has an office in Coral Gables. Frank and Beans is Frank Laureano, an Alabama native and a nurse at Jackson. Tricky Dick is Richard Stewart, a gentlemanly Oklahoman and retired insurance executive. Mr. Ed is Ed Cooney, a 40-year-old tool-and-die maker from Pennsylvania.

The group proceeds to station six, which features a springing teal -- a clay pigeon that ascends at a sharp vertical angle away from the shooter. Paz, Sr. (Homer) is pulverizing targets, a process that showers the group with a light hail of clay fragments. "Hey, they're shootin' back," jokes Paz, Jr. (Junior). "It slices, it dices, it even circumcises," he says, referring to his dad's gun. Stewart (Tricky Dick) and Cooney (Mr. Ed) are also hitting with more frequency.

"Just swing through it. Just swing through it," urges Paz, Sr., as Laureano (Frank and Beans) prepares to shoot again. Laureano explodes the first pair, then the second. He hits six targets in a row. He is, as sportscasters like to say, on fire.

But the streak ends at station five. He's rushing. "It's like Napoleon said: 'Dress me slowly. I'm in a hurry,'" he pronounces, then explains the adage. "You know, you're going into battle so you want to get it right the first time."

Of course the presence of successful, erudite men on a sporting clays course would not surprise a student of history. Sport shooting, in all its varieties, has always been a rich man's game. And, as elsewhere, shotgunning is a discrete and increasingly popular charm of the South Florida bourgeoisie. A larger portion of the local upper crust still hobnobs on golf courses, but shotgunning attracts even more sophisticated men, who just happen to have a passion for blowing little saucers to bits. "I've never really met anyone I disliked in the shooting game, but I have met them in golf," observes Dave Hewes, a retired Walgreens store manager, who is vice president of Trail Trap and Skeet, a local gun club. "I've seen guys take their clubs and throw them down the fairway because they missed a shot. In [shooting] you don't have that, because you're not going to throw a $5000 gun in the water. Shooters are more controlled emotionally than golfers."

They are often wealthier, too. South Florida's shotgunning brotherhood includes Cuban sugar barons and members of the Du Pont manufacturing empire, as well as doctors and lawyers. The guns go for as much as $75,000. Parking lots at some courses include Jaguars next to pickup trucks.

The first sport shooting known to modern man was trap, which Englishmen invented in the late 1700s to practice hunting. The activity involved the slaying of live birds, usually pigeons or sparrows, which range attendants placed underneath old top hats (i.e., traps). Someone would pull a rope attached to a hat, the bird would fly, and the sportsman would try to hit it.

The first trapshoot in the United States took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1831, according to author Tom Migdalski, a shotgun instructor and shooting team coach at Yale University. Competitors killed buckets of pigeons, but by the 1850s human hews and cries about the cruelty of such bird blasting prompted some states to ban the activity. In response enterprising enthusiasts again followed English footsteps, substituting glass balls filled with feathers for the live birds. When a shooter successfully shattered one of the orbs, the feathers floated earthward.

Glass balls evolved into clay pigeons. In 1880 George Ligowsky, a Cincinnati sportsman, developed a disk that was a precursor of today's highly aerodynamic targets. By then gun clubs had sprung up across the United States, Canada, and in British stomping grounds in the Caribbean.

In the 1920s the sport grew more complex in England and the United States. Bored with the predictability of trapshooting, Charles Davies, an Andover, Massachusetts, businessman developed a spinoff known as skeet. In trap, a shooter stands at a station, while targets fly away from him with slight variations in flight path. In skeet, the marksman proceeds through a series of five stations and the airborne disks launch in a greater number of patterns. Also in the '20s, Englishmen began to develop sporting clays. As with soccer, it would be many years before it would make a splash on the other side of the Atlantic.

While trap and skeet grew in popularity in the United States, they also gained momentum in a Caribbean sportsman's paradise: Cuba. Sport shooting appeared on the island soon after yanqui imperialism, following the rout of the Spaniards in 1898. Club Cazadores del Cerro (CCC), or the Hunters Club of the Hills, was formed in Havana in 1902. It was likely the first such organization on the island.

When he joined the CCC 53 years ago, Manolin del Campo was a twenty-year-old working for his family's land development company outside Havana. "I have hunted since I was ten years old. I killed my first quail December 7, 1936," recalls del Campo, a West Palm Beach resident who is retired and spends much of his time hunting and fishing. One of del Campo's most memorable achievements came at age 25, when he finished second in a CCC competition by shooting 34 pigeons in a row. "Live pigeon [shooting] was very successful in Cuba," he notes.

In the '40s and '50s, Americans and Cubans participated in each other's shotgun competitions. CCC members traveled to U.S. shooting establishments such as the Philadelphia Gun Club. Yanquis visited the CCC's spread, which resembled a fancy country club with Spanish tile floors, lots of windows, and sculptures. The building was air conditioned and featured a sleek bar room. "It was as elegant as could be," del Campo remembers. "It was very spacious, a beautiful place." Outside there were five shooting ranges and a playground for kids.

Among the Yanks who visited during this era were world champion shotgunner Homer Clark and a literary sportsman named Ernest Hemingway. Founding CCC member Bernabe Macias, who is 80 years old, and his 76-year-old wife, Beba Ibargüen de Macias, remember the writer well. "He was crazy," Ibargüen says. "He always wore shorts and sandals and ...," she flicks a thumb toward her mouth to signify the act of imbibing, "he drank a lot. Whisky."

Other distinguished shooters dropped in from time to time. A February 1959 photograph of tournament winners taken at the Havana club features two competitors from the United States and two bearded men dressed in military fatigues. The caption identifies one of the two bearded men as Sierra Maestra, an alias. "They were with Castro," Ibargüen says with disgust.

The CCC's glory days in Havana ended soon after Castro consolidated control of the revolution during 1959 and 1960. Sport shooting, like much in bourgeois society, was not a priority in the new socialist Cuba. Many CCC members joined the exodus from the island in the early 1960s.

As the Castro regime became more firmly entrenched, CCC members decided to re-establish the club in Dade County in the mid-1960s under a slightly different name: Club de Cazadores Cubanos, which allowed for the same acronym. Members began showing up at the Trail Glades range. They found the headquarters of Trail Trap and Skeet (TTS), a shooting club established in 1954 by the late boat builder Sonny Hewes. The Anglo club's digs, a musty two-room cabin with faded carpeting, old plaid couches, and an ersatz wood, vinyl-topped bar, was a far cry from the CCC's posh Havana home. But its history was nearly as rich. An early TTS member was Hal Du Pont, Jr., a scion of E.I. Du Pont, a Delaware gunpowder manufacturer whose company would evolve into the well-known chemical empire. These days Du Pont, who lives in Vero Beach, is president of the Krieghoff gun company and sits on the National Sporting Clays Association's (NSCA) executive council.

The TTS welcomed new arrivals from Cuba, long-time members of both clubs say. "We never had a problem with them," says Du Pont. In contrast to the ethnic strife that occurred at a variety of other private clubs, Anglo and Cuban shotgunners forged friendships based on their mutual zeal for shotgunning. "There's never been any animosity out there. It's always been a very good relationship," insists Mariano Macias, one of Bernabe and Beba's sons, who helped found the CCC in Miami. "Shooters are funny people. There's a common bond." Gun-control efforts have strengthened the brotherhood, he thinks. "It comes down to what we do. We practice a sport that sometimes is perceived by some people as controversial." TTS vice president Dave Hewes, son of the TTS founder, concurs that there has been a minimum of ethnic strife among shooters. "We have a very good working rapport with [the Cubans]" he says. "You've got to be a people person to shoot. Loners don't make it in shooting.... It's kind of like a fellowship of strangers. But they're trying to help you and you're trying to help them shoot better. God, that sounds weird, but that's the way it is. I built a lot of great friendships out there shooting."

Reflecting the demographic changes of South Florida, the CCC's total membership caught up with that of Trail Trap and Skeet by the late 1980s. David Paz, Sr., whose father is Cuban, says the only tensions occur when "Cuban time" lengthens the duration of competitions. "A lot of guys don't like to shoot with [the Cubans] because they tend to come anytime they want during a meet. When registration is over at 10:30 a.m. and some of them waltz in at 1:00 p.m. and start shooting, then you're there a lot longer." But Cuban culture has its advantages on the range, Paz admits. "Why people like to go to the Cuban shoots is that they usually serve better food there. You don't get the usual hot dogs or chicken. You get some nice pork. You get fried bananas. And they usually serve beer at the end."

These days the Cuban clan within the Miami-Dade shotgun fraternity dominates; CCC boasts 124 members and TTS is down to about 60. This shifting ethnic balance is displayed on a breezy Friday night in early October and CCC members, along with their wives and novias, are celebrating at the club's annual banquet on Virginia Key. A crowd favoring guayaberas and minidresses packs a large room on the second floor of the Miami Rowing Club's elegant headquarters, a two-story wooden lodge that looks as though it belongs on old Nantucket rather than in contemporary South Florida. Small groups of men and women gather near an open bar on a wooden deck overlooking Biscayne Bay, telling jokes, smoking cigars, and sipping drinks. Inside, a jazz-violin player tries to entertain people seated at big round tables. A few Anglos are present. "I'm one of the token gringos," jokes John Thompson, a programmer for Cyber Engineering Services, a local military contractor.

Franz Arango, who is serving as MC, announces the arrival of Kevin Kirwin, a goateed Delaware native who is park manager/range master at Trail Glades. "He has married a Latin lady," Arango pronounces, prompting cheers and applause. Kirwin grabs the microphone and jokes that he is late because he forgot his new wife, which provokes a burst of laughter. "It's true," he insists, explaining that he eventually went back to pick her up. The couple heads off to find a table.

Kirwin owes his job, in part, to the Cazadores' clout. In 1997, when then-parks director Bill Cutie recommended closing Trail Glades, CCC members rallied against the proposal. Along with a coalition of gun clubs, they convinced a majority of county commissioners to preserve the facility. To reverse a longstanding fiscal decline, the county increased fees from five dollars per person to six dollars for trap and seven dollars for skeet. Under Kirwin's direction, range attendance has increased seven percent; the gun-friendly park has gone from operating at an annual deficit of more than $200,000 a few years ago to a $41,500 surplus this past fiscal year. The sporting clays concession, which pays the county only three percent of its proceeds, accounted for half the windfall.

Cups runneth over at the banquet as well, as the wine and whisky flow. People line up for roast beef, chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf, potatoes, and flan. At one table the gaiety is tinged with nostalgia. Beba Ibargüen de Macias has brought two scrapbooks containing old newspaper articles that chronicle competitions at the CCC's Havana clubhouse. She wears a bracelet made of small gold medals her husband won in Cuba during 1958 and 1959. "Se dice que recordar es volver a vivir," she declares, then translates. "They say that to remember is to live again."

After dinner Arango announces the results of the Copa Cuba, a shooting contest held at Trail Glades this past September. Steve Fischer, a Detroit native who moved to Miami in 1980, placed first in the sporting clays competition, but is not present to claim his trophy. Cubans dominate the skeet and trap contests. After some couples dance to Latin tunes, Arango awards raffle prizes, which include airplane tickets and two large hunting knives.

Soon it is midnight and most of the remaining banqueters have moved outside to the second-floor deck. One debate centers on the ancient practice of shooting doves. "They take little animals and kill them," observes Corina Alvarez, a wry 30-year-old public-relations account executive at Burson-Marsteller. Nattily dressed in a low-cut black mini, she is referring to a group of hunters that includes her escort, George Arias del Campo, a dapper 26-year-old in a suit and tie. Arias, who is standing next to Alvarez, smiles quietly and rolls his eyes. In the morning, he says, he will be heading off with his grandfather, Manolin del Campo, to shoot doves at the Okeechobee County game farm of sugar company executive Pepe Fanjul. Not only is Fanjul a member of one of the wealthiest families in the nation, but he is noteworthy for another reason. Del Campo thinks Fanjul built South Florida's first sporting clays course in the mid-1980s.

Sporting clays' U.S. roots first took hold far from South Florida. According to shotgunner and historian Bob Brister, the first competition took place in 1980 near Sequiem, Washington, during the North American Field Shooting Championship. The contest was organized by Chuck Dryke, a dog trainer and father of Matt Dryke, a gold medalist in Olympic skeet shooting. In the years that ensued, the epicenter moved east. The Orvis Company hosted the first U.S. championship in Houston in 1985. The NSCA is based in San Antonio, Texas.

These days one of the sport's boosters in South Florida is Bob Oliver, who owns Tropical Sporting Clays, a private concession that runs the course at Trail Glades. (Miami-Dade County manages the trap and skeet ranges.) Oliver designed and built the course, which opened in 1997. The droll, cigar-smoking 66-year-old from Colorado can often be found wielding a $16,000 shotgun. He can afford such luxuries because in 1996 he sold his company, Defense Technology Corporation of America, a Wyoming-based manufacturer that is one of the world's largest suppliers of tear gas and pepper spray.

As dusk descended one recent evening, Oliver sat on the back of a golf cart, showing off his $75,000 Perazzi shotgun, which one of his assistants had fetched from the clubhouse safe. He laid down the Italian-made piece, turned it over, and marveled at the array of etchings. They were done by an Italian artist on silver plating surrounding the trigger area and include golden geese flying over a landscape with pine trees and a farm house on the horizon, an Indian chasing a buffalo, and a portrait of Oliver's deceased black Labrador retriever, Bruno. "This engraving doesn't help you shoot," Oliver noted, providing the standard joke.

"The Italian engravers are the cream of the crop," says David Paz, Sr. Paz recently saw an engraved Holland & Holland Brothers shotgun owned by Fort Lauderdale doctor Baron Beck that cost $55,000. "That's probably the most expensive gun I've seen. The engraving was a game scene with pheasants, woodcocks, and grouse, and also pointer dogs. German short-hair, I believe. And it was absolutely beautiful," Paz reports. "However, he still doesn't shoot any better with it."

Paz owns a German Krieghoff shotgun worth $11,500, but shoots better with an American-made Browning that he bought for $2800. As an army reconnaissance soldier during the Vietnam War, he wielded a Stevens pump-action shotgun. He took up sporting clays four years ago after tiring of pistols and rifles. "My goal is having a good time and introducing friends and acquaintances [to sporting clays] and showing them a good time," Paz says. "But I don't worry about the score."

That is the attitude of many new recruits. Felix Gonzalez, a 46-year-old Miami gastroenterologist, started relaxing with sporting clays two years ago. On a recent Sunday he unwound with his eleven-year-old son, Andres, while his wife and daughter attended a ballet. Andres eliminated a commendable 51 of 100 targets and enjoyed razzing his dad. For the doctor the shooting experience is rather meditative. "You have to concentrate so much on hitting the target that it takes your mind off your stress," he comments.

Mariano Macias of the CCC thinks sporting clays could serve a higher purpose for South Florida. "I've gone to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for business meetings, and part of the entertainment that they offer is to go shooting. And they have a beautiful facility. And nobody in Miami has ever done that," laments Macias, who owns two medical-supply companies. "With all these companies that come into town for conventions and so forth, they think golf, tennis, but they never think about taking somebody out to shoot sporting clays. For me that would be something that would be a lot of fun."

And a lot of fun for the kids.

Every sport needs new recruits to carry it into the future. On a recent Wednesday night at the range, Herby Kanzki and his friend, Alex Veloso, are having fun obliterating flying targets to smithereens. Veloso is a 23-year-old medical student who competed in the NSCA national championships last year. Kanzki's sister, Elda, is watching. "They bring me along to competitions and have me wink at the other shooters to distract them," she says in English, with an accent that reveals her Haitian roots.

Veloso has been shooting shotguns since he was a little boy. His father, Angel Veloso, a surgeon and CCC member, introduced him to the sport. Alex stopped competing recently to concentrate on his studies. He also confesses he was taking the pastime a bit too seriously. After choking at a competition in Texas last year, he became intensely frustrated. "I threw my gun down," he says. "That's when I knew I needed to take a break." His friend Kanzki has now overtaken him.

Carlos Rice, Jr., a former junior national cycling champion and CCC member along with his dad, sums up the charm of blowing clay pigeons to bits. The twenty-year-old graduate of Belén Jesuit Preparatory School is now a chemistry student at the University of Miami. "It's something I can do with my father," he says. But it is more than that. "It does things for your ego," he suggests, grinning and holding a Churchill-size Gloria Cubana cigar. "It gives you a sense of empowerment."

The sport is attracting even younger men. Why play video games when you can wipe out moving targets with a real gun in the fresh air? One trio of young men discovered the wonders of shotgun shooting at Trail Glades on a recent Wednesday night, as Tropical Sporting Clays staffers hosted their weekly Five Stand Social.

Steve Fischer, who spent most of the afternoon shooting, is now giving three neophytes -- Shawn Hawes, Willie Ruiz, and Don Ferguson -- a lesson in Five Stand, a scaled-down version of sporting clays that includes five stations. Fischer, this year's Copa Cuba sporting clays champ, is also a member of the NSCA's All-American team. "It's not as cheap as bowling but it's not as expensive as golf," says Fischer, a big-bellied man with a goatee and a head of thick white hair. He owns a $20,000 Krieghoff, but shoots better with his $550 Winchester Super X. He handcrafted the wood that makes up the gun's stock. On the range Fischer's attire includes a white cap bearing a pin depicting a "no whining" symbol. Fischer thinks his avocation has a bright future in the world of sports, but acknowledges a difficult hurdle must be cleared before the masses take notice. "One of the problems is you have to make it visually appealing on TV," Fischer suggests. It's true. Televised sporting clays would be about as exciting as bass fishing, though noisier.

The teacher and the trio are lined up a few feet from one another along the swamp's edge. Hawes and Ruiz, both age nineteen, have been buddies since elementary school, and they attended Sunset High together. They are similarly clad in baggy jeans and Polo caps. Ferguson is 23 years old and recently moved to Miami from Brooklyn. Occasionally they hit a target. "Okay, this one is going to go across and plop into the pond," Fischer says. His understudies are hitting about one in ten. "It's harder than it looks," Fischer says, lighting up a smoke. "Let me show ya." He grabs the shotgun. "Just look at 'em and shoot 'em. Take the time to get on 'em." He proceeds to pulverize two in a row.

Ferguson, a gangly lad dressed in shorts and a red T-shirt, steps into the booth and dispatches with five of six targets. "Excellent!" praises Fischer.

After each has shot a box of shells, they thank Fischer and hustle excitedly to their car. They are planning to come back soon, they say. They hope to pool their cash to buy a shotgun.


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